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Hibakusha: Conscripted Korean criticizes policies forcing Japanese name changes

HIROSHIMA -- This summer will mark the 74th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings in August 1945. A treaty banning development and other uses of nuclear weapons was adopted by the United Nations in 2017, but divisions between nuclear armed and non-nuclear armed states became evident at the 2019 Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference held this spring.

The prospects of a nuclear-free world seem far off for hibakusha, A-bomb survivors now aged over 82 on average, who strongly wish for a world free of the weapons.

Kwak Kwi-hoon, 95, is a South Korean national living in Seongnam. He is the honorary president of the South Korean Atomic Bomb Sufferers Association, and has worked tirelessly for the relief of hibakusha living in his country and residing outside of Japan.

In a dark room at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in June, a softly lit photograph of Kwak is on display. This spring, he made the trip to Japan for the first time in two years to visit the museum's renovated main building.

"I wasn't affected as a Japanese person. I am Korean," he said angrily. In front of him, reproductions of his military pocketbook and his disaster certification were on display.

But the name on the documents isn't Kwak Kwi-hoon, it's Tadahiro Matsuyama. An explanation provided with the items says it is his Japanese-style name. "Just based on this, people won't understand why I had a Japanese name," he said.

Born on the Korean Peninsula when it was under Japanese rule, he was named Matsuyama in accordance with the Soshi-kaimei policy, which required Korean people to change their names to Japanese ones.

In 1944, the height of the Pacific War, Kwak was conscripted at age 20, just before he was set to graduate from teacher training school. He was deployed to the army in Hiroshima.

On Aug. 6, 1945, the day the bomb was dropped, he was irradiated immediately upon leaving his barracks some 2 kilometers from the A-bomb's hypocenter. He sustained burns to his head and back, and was left on the verge of death.

As items that prove he was exposed to the bomb's radiation, his disaster certificate and other effects are valuable evidence. But Kwak feels very strongly about his name, which should be "protected even at the risk of one's life." In his hometown in North Jeolla Province, people have proudly worn the name Kwak for over 500 years.

"The way people think about their surnames in Japan and South Korea is fundamentally different. For South Koreans, having your name forcibly changed is the worst form of humiliation," he explained. Precisely for that reason, he could not overlook the lack of detail on the Soshi-kaimei policy.

Kwak was a plaintiff in a suit for A-bomb survivors living abroad who sought eligibility for health management allowances under the Atomic Bomb Survivors' Assistance Act. The challenge was launched after the former Ministry of Health and Welfare discontinued payments on the basis that residency outside Japan disqualified them from support. "It wasn't just Japanese people who were victimized by the bombs," he said.

In December 2002, the Osaka High Court ruled in the plaintiff's favor. The presiding judge stated, "We have no choice but to accept the fact that a hibakusha is a hibakusha, wherever they are."

The renovated Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is the first to have set up an exhibition space for foreign hibakusha. A long held wish of Kwak's has been realized. Along with himself, a German man and at least one Malaysian hibakusha are introduced at the exhibit. He praised the display as historical progress.

To see the new exhibition, Kwak, who experiences difficulty in walking due to pain in his knees, pushed himself to make the trip to Japan. He doesn't know when he'll be able to make the journey again. For that reason, he was glad to have been able to tell the museum what he thought.

With conviction in his eyes, he said, "People from other countries were also affected by the atomic bombing. I want it (the exhibition) to spread this fact that cannot be countered by anyone. "

After the normalization of relations between Japan and South Korea in July 1967, Kwak founded the forerunner organization to the South Korean Atomic Bomb Sufferers Association, of which he remains honorary president.

(Japanese original by Misa Koyama, Hiroshima Bureau)

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